Film Review – The Bad Seed

The Bad Seed (1956, dir. Mervyn LeRoy)
Starring Patty McCormack, Nancy Kelly, Eileen Heckart, Evelyn Varden, Henry Jones

Contemporary audiences would probably be bored and not find this film scary. Contemporary audiences are dopes on the whole, though. This piece of pernicious, regressive cinema is one of the tightest horror pics I’ve seen. What makes it such a juicy little piece of evil is the context. Its the repressive Red Scare 1950s where wholesomeness and purity is slathered on suburban streets like whitewash. Children especially are angelic and your neighbors can pop in when ever they choose.  This is also the height of psycho-analysis, where Freud’s phallic fantasies are holy and it becomes acceptable, and encouraged to visit the shrink. Into this tense situation, we’re given Rhoda Penmark (McCormack), the sweetest little blonde in pigtails you ever did see. Rhoda is absolutely perfect, her parents and teacher agree. But Rhoda doesn’t like having what she wants withheld and she will take it, no matter the cost.

Before Damien, there was Rhoda. Based on a novel by William March, but based even more on the stage play adaptation, The Bad Seed tells the story of Christine Penmark (Kelly), a suburban housewife, who begins to suspect a sinister nature in her daughter, and subsequently herself. After a school picnic by the lake, one of Rhoda’s classmates ends up drowned. The teachers and adults present that day seem to regard Rhoda with disdain in the wake of the tragedy, and Christine can’t figure out why. It seems the young boy had won the penmanship medal for his class, and Rhoda was seen pestering him during the picnic. When the body is found, the medal is missing. But, little girls who have tea parties in the backyard don’t kill, do they?

The Bad Seed is high melodrama, but by god, its so much fun. Its also incredibly shocking when you step back and think about the morals and standards imposed on film at the time, that such a dark picture could have been made. Director LeRoy employs craft camerawork to hide any gore from us, but a hell of a lot is implied. One character meets with a fiery end off camera, but their wails of utter hell are definitely heard. McCormack is especially wonderful as the evil Rhoda, she is able to play the saccharine sweetness and then switch in a blink to one of the most vicious, murderous tykes you’ve ever seen.

The film is also prominently driven by the female members of the cast. While there are male characters, they are mostly absent or inept at doing anything about the goings on. Its the women, Christine, Rhoda’s teacher, the mother of the drowned boy who see the truth. How they react is varying, but its apparent that the women can sense something wrong. There is one male character who is on to Rhoda, the dim witted and vulgar groundskeeper Leroy. He taunts Rhoda, not a smart decision, and ends up paying for this. But is interesting that the only man who see her for who she is, is an outsider from the norm. A commentary on the blind nature of the status quo of the 1950s, or was it a voluntary ignorance?

This is not a grand guignol, but a very sparse and simple psychological story. The action is centralized in the living room of the Penmark home, much like the stage play would have been. Events are talked about, rarely seen. The only downside is the obviously censor ordered ending, wherein “Rhoda must pay for her crimes, lest the children who see this get ideas”. Its definitely out of place, and I like to think the creative minds behind the film made it so dissonant as a “fuck you” to the moral majority that policed cinema in the day. A great piece of subversive 50s cinema, that is well worth watching.

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